By Rachel Scheinberg
Rachel Scheinberg is a senior at Yeshiva University's Stern College for Women. She is an intern in the OU's Department of Community Engagement.
As I watched the thousand teen participants at this year’s Yom NCSY (a large event uniting all NCSY summer programs in Israel for an evening of camaraderie and one amazing concert) I found myself reflecting upon my own journey to becoming a Torah observant Jew since I first participated on my own NCSY summer program in the Summer of 2009, The Jerusalem Journey (TJJ). TJJ is a program for public school students to explore Israel and our Jewish heritage.
This fall will begin my senior year at Stern College of Yeshiva University. For many, attending YU for college may come as a natural extension of their upbringing. In my opinion, my attendance at YU—coming from a public high school—well, to say it was out of the ordinary would be an understatement. In fact, I actually enrolled in a secular university for one semester before I was encouraged by the campus rabbi to attend Stern as a more appropriate environment for my interests.
The decision to change my lifestyle to be Torah observant—from the food I eat, to the clothes I wear, to the activities I engage in—has been one of the greatest gifts I could give myself.
I grew up in Coral Gables, FL (outside of Miami) attending a Reform Jewish day school through the sixth grade, before entering the public school system. While my parents are not observant themselves, they do in fact recognize an emet (truth) in Judaism which propelled their desire to attend an Orthodox shul for the holidays and to supplement my education with Hebrew school. One would think for this reason that I grew up aware of the full spectrum of Jewish life that existed, but sadly I did not.
My initial interest in Judaism was sparked when my best friend invited me to attend a Shabbat dinner with her in the home of an Israeli woman she knew. Perhaps it was the food, or perhaps it was the company, but something kept me coming back. What began as me driving away after dinner soon turned into pushing off getting into the car and later developed into me sleeping over to stay the entire Shabbat. It was this woman who strongly encouraged me to visit Israel and recommended that I go on TJJ. An interview with a rabbi was set up for me to discuss the excursion and, well, as the saying goes, the rest is history.
I recently heard a rabbi describe inspiration as “a momentary sense of clarity, and a big blessing.” TJJ provided me with that first inspiration, opening my mind and heart to internalize the wisdom of Torah.
Being in Israel introduced me to a way of life I had little exposure to; my eyes were opened to a way of life enveloped in spirituality and holiness. I found myself encouraged to question concepts I had given little thought to in the past, such as God, sanctity, and man’s purpose in this world. What was my purpose in this world? In my search for meaning, I discovered a deep connection to the land and the people, and the best part was that they were my people.
I recognized the existence of God as a reality, not an abstract idea. I found this realization of truth initially intimidating to face, and yet more comforting as time passed. The acceptance of God into my life provided me with a sense of purpose and personal accountability. I understood the wonderful honor it is to continue the traditions my ancestors fought to protect for thousands of years.
Returning home in time for my senior year of high school, I found myself inspired to accept upon myself major life alternations sparked by my new passion for Israel and Judaism. I so wanted to become the person I felt I was internally, I just didn’t have the tools yet. I understood that while I had a desire to take on every mitzvah at once, it was and still is a constant growth process. Thankfully, I had an entourage to guide me in the process consisting of Southern NCSY advisors, rabbeim and a brother who had also decided to take on Torah observance.
I remember getting in a car on Shabbat for the first time after I returned from Israel. I decided that I couldn’t yet keep Shabbat in its entirety, but that I would try to avoid adjusting the radio or using the AC. It wasn’t much for others, but to me it meant something.
Another goal I set in my desire to live a Torah-based life was becoming tzniut, which meant a genuine commitment to conducting myself in a modest fashion both internally and externally. Not used to keeping a certain dress code, tzniut was difficult to adapt. With time though, it was no longer a debate between wearing my favorite pair of jeans or the skirt. If I had to guess, the key to my growth was asking myself who I wanted to be and making every action fit that picture. I desperately wanted to be the girl in the skirt I so deeply respected and admired. I came to the understanding that I am a Bat Yisroel, a daughter of the Master of the Universe, and that is what I wanted to represent. As it turns out, my soul craved something the jeans could no longer account for.
Kashrut somehow managed to get easier too.
After briefly reflecting back on my journey, I find it remarkable and surprising that I have chosen to write this article considering that I have spent the majority of my observant life struggling to hide the fact that I went to public school in an attempt to blend in with other religious Jews as much as possible. You could say that since I began becoming observant, that was my goal; it was not until later in my college career that I began to actually internalize the things that my friends and mentors were telling me for so very long. Things such as my background would not be a hindrance to my growth; that I could become the person I wanted to be despite not attending seminary for a year; that I’ll marry the boy I want despite my lack of schooling.
It took some time to recognize that there are no requirements to being a heartfelt Jew marked by the ability to quote Gemara or attendance at a specific seminary. My personal evolution brought me to a place where I was able to understand and accept myself for who I am and no longer limit my growth by my background.
This past January, I shared my public school background for the first time to a room filled with rabbeim and YU students. I’m not exactly sure what came over me, but you know what? I don’t think they thought any differently of me.
Every morning I recite morning blessings because as a Jew that is what I am meant to do. And every morning, when I read shelo asani goy (the blessing that thanks God for making me a Jew and not an outsider), I pause for a moment and try to think about what my life would be like had I not cashed in my winning lotto ticket, also known as my birthright.
Appreciating the life I’m now living, at times I still get emotional that this is my reality. How did I end up in a dorm where they announce “man on floor” as a warning? How did it become the norm that I would be surrounded by girls who care so much about modesty that they wear skirts over their pants while working out? The first time I ever witnessed a Zumba class (a popular exercise workout) like this in Stern, I began tearing up. There was something so beautiful about the mix of girls who I knew would never think to leave their rooms dressed immodestly.
This past year in Stern, I was privileged to enroll in my first Advanced Judaic Studies class, which, to me, marked an arrival at an emotional, intellectual and spiritual place to which I never thought I would rise. And yet, I’m doing it. Everything I’ve experienced thus far in my life has pointed me to a gratified path.
Though I’ve struggled greatly in the past to achieve my goal of living a fully Torah observant life and know I will face challenges in the future, I must remember that the sense of pride and love I feel towards Judaism has literally and irrevocably molded the person I am today, and brought me to a place where I have built myself in ways I didn’t think possible. I often remind myself that anything worth anything in life is a challenge, and keep moving forward.
I only wish these same feelings for the thousand participants on NCSY summer programs I watched at Yom NCSY, and for the thousands who have not yet had their own moment of clarity.